Bush Endorses Sharon's Withdrawal Plan
President Won't Back Palestinians 'Right of Return' to Israel

The Associated Press   April 14, 2004; 1:41 PM 

President Bush on Wednesday endorsed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plan to pull out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank as "historic and courageous actions."

Bush also said Palestinian refugees, as part of any final peace deal with the Palestinians, should be settled in a Palestinian state, not in Israel -- a concession that Sharon had sought from Bush.

And, Bush said, the "realities on the ground and in the region have changed greatly" and should be reflected in any final peace deal -- another concession, also sought by Sharon, to the fact that Israel has large groups of settlers in the West Bank.

Bush urged the Palestinians to match Israel's "boldness and courage."

Sharon said he was encouraged by Bush's support for his plan, which the Israeli leader had sought as a way to boost his own party's support.

The Israeli leader said his disengagement plan would improve Israel's security and economy and reduce friction between Israelis and Palestinians.  It will create a "new and better reality" for Israel, Sharon said, and set the right conditions for negotiations with the Palestinians.

Asked outright if the United States recognized Israel's right to keep some settlements in the West Bank, Bush said Sharon had started the process of removing settlements from the West Bank.

He said final decisions about Israeli settlements in the West Bank had to wait for "final status" negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians on a Palestinian state.

Bush said Sharon's plan creates an opportunity for a Palestinian state to emerge.  But even before the announcement, Palestinian leaders were responding skeptically to Sharon's plan.  They seek all of the West Bank and Gaza as well as part of Jerusalem for their state.

"It is now up to responsible Palestinians, caring Europeans, the United Nations, to step in and create such a state," Bush said.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat said Wednesday the peace process would be dead if the United States assures Israel it can keep some key West Bank settlement blocs and would not have to absorb Palestinian refugees.  And Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia said he hoped the United States would not agree to language "that is considered a reward for a party or a side at the expense of the other party.  Otherwise, there will be no peace."

Palestinian Foreign Minister Nabil Shaath is due in Washington next week for talks with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.

Israel captured the West Bank and east Jerusalem from Jordan in a lightning victory over Arab armies in the 1967 Middle East war.

For several decades, U.S. administrations have operated on the assumption there could be some adjustments in the borders that existed between Israel and the Arabs before the war.

But Sharon eyes more than a small part of the West Bank, hoping to hold on to five large blocs of Jewish settlements there.

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